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Tutoring scientific subject matter in students’ mother tongue

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Tutoring scientific subject matter in students’ mother tongue FACULTY OF HEALTH SCIENCES: STELLENBOSCH UNIVERSITY, SOUTH AFRICA AJN Louw ; M de Villiers; M van Heusden. BACKGROUND

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Tutoring scientific subject matter in students’ mother tongue


AJN Louw; M de Villiers; M van Heusden


Stellenbosch University (SU) is situated in South Africa – a country with 11 official languages of which two (English and Afrikaans) are used as academic languages. In order to address the needs of a multilingual student body at the Faculty of Health Sciences, all undergraduate modules include both English and Afrikaans as medium of instruction. Chemistry for Health Sciences (a first year module) is currently the exception to the rule and only presented in English. Some first year students from predominantly Afrikaans medium schools struggled understanding basic Chemistry terminology and concepts. Faculty responded to this need as well as to other non-English home language speakers in a creative way.


Mother tongue Chemistry tutor groups were formed. All Afrikaans speaking students as well as African language speakers were invited to join a mother tongue tutor group. Specific tutors in the different language groups were selected to conduct these tutorials. Groups were kept relatively small (6 – 8 students per group) and groups consisted of students from the same residence or area. The focus was on the understanding of concepts and not to necessarily translate terminology. Tutors acted as facilitators rather than lecturers stimulating effective group interaction.

Lecture in English only

Smaller tutor group in students mother tongue (Afrikaans)

Smaller tutor group in students mother tongue (African language)

Smaller tutor group in students mother tongue (Afrikaans)


A research project was launched immediately after the implementation of the mother tongue tutor groups to determine the effectiveness of this intervention or whether changes had to be made. Quantitative and qualitative research methods (mixed method) were used to determine the impact of the intervention. Semi-structured focus group discussions with students as well as tutors were held. Additionally individual in-depth interviews were conducted. All data were thematically analysed. The results of a questionnaire completed by all participating students, together with their Chemistry examination results were quantitatively analysed.


  • Qualitative
  • Initial fear of Chemistry being taught only in English decreased within weeks
  • Participants very enthusiastic and positive about intervention
  • Language later not the main issue, but rather the extra opportunity
  • Expressed appreciation towards faculty creating a discussion platform
  • The fringe benefits of group work (e.g. peer teaching and peer learning) became evident
  • Groups contributed effectively to the meta-cognition of the individual student
  • Enhanced social integration of students – reduced alienation



Providing a formal space where students could communicate in their mother tongue about scientific subject matter, not only contributed towards mastering the subject matter, but also enhanced the development of critical generic skills students need to function optimally at university.